Here Be Dragons, But Also Dazzling Marvels
AWM #51: On the constant remaking of this newsletter, on maps, and the dizziness of being alive 🐉
Hello, friends. Welcome again to this ever-changing newsletter experiment, brought to you live from the magnificent Rose Main Reading Room of the main branch of the New York Public Library:
We’re now on issue #51 of this newsletter, the first of the second half of the 100 I initially aimed for. Since I grow tired of the way I do things every few months, it seems like a good time to (yet again) change its title. Now I call it Atlas of Wonders and Monsters.
The inspiration is from the Carta Marina, which I’ve been sampling from for the visuals (including the logo) ever since I changed the newsletter’s title to “Atlas of Rabbit Hole” 10 weeks ago, and which is, well, full of wonders and monsters:
Atlas of Rabbit Holes was not a bad title, but there were some things wrong with it. For one thing, I’m somewhat tired of the rabbit hole metaphor to describe a deep dive into some topic, maybe because it’s used so much in the crypto world. And I don’t even like rabbits that much.
But also, it put a constraint on my writing that turned out to be more stifling than fruitful. The idea was to share something I had learned over the week, but it never really worked. Instead, every Wednesday morning, I had to find some topic to write about, which was sometimes easy, sometimes a struggle. This was hardly different from the earlier Light Gray Matters days, except that I had to actually dive into a specific topic and write an explanatory post — excluding things like personal essays, reflections, fiction, or poetic writing.
The thing is, with so little time to actually do the work, my research remained very superficial. I should have explored the depth of a rabbit hole, and instead I just peered around the edge. You could get something as good, even better, from just reading the first few paragraphs of a Wikipedia article.
No wonder that my subscriber list basically didn’t grow at all in those 10 weeks. I’m not sure I would have subscribed myself.
The newsletter’s format won’t really change, except that I’m removing the rabbit hole constraint and going back to general essays. I’ll keep writing a post every Wednesday, at least for the 49 next weeks. It seems appropriate to alliteratively call that the “Weekly Wonder.”1
The theme of the newsletter won’t really change either — it was already maximally broad, and remains so. But maybe I’ll be able to imbue this project with a new energy. To understand what that could look like, let’s start with the three nouns in the new title.
Wonder is a pretty great word. It carries two different but equally enticing connotations: first, of grandeur, beauty, richness: a wonder can be a monument, like the Colossus of Rhodes, or an inspiring natural landscape, or anything that amazes and creates the weird and pleasurable emotion we call awe; second, as a verb, of curiosity, questions, and learning. Wonder expresses the dizziness of being alive.
The word monster signals the flip side of that. The world is full of marvels, but it also carries threats. It is full of problems and imperfections and downright ugliness. It would be tempting to ignore all of that and focus only on the wonderful, but that would be a mistake. The monsters cannot be left lurking in the unknown parts of our world, devouring whoever approaches them. For there are new wonders to be discovered if we can slay the monsters.
(Also, some monsters are wonderful in their own right. They’re dangerous apex predators, sure, but they’re also worthy of protection from extinction!)
Finally, the word atlas expresses my longstanding obsession with maps. It’s not my first time calling something an “atlas” — I wrote part of a short story collection that I called “Atlas of Phantom Islands.”2 It was published on my old French blog, which is called Cartographier tout et n’importe quoi, translating to “Making maps of everything and anything.” And one of my favorite books is called Atlas of Remote Islands.
Where does that come from, actually? Why do I like atlases and maps so much?
Perhaps it’s my upbringing. My mom studied cartography back in the 1980s, just before the field would be engulfed in the computer revolution. (My mom ended up being engulfed too, and she has worked in computers, not in cartography, ever since.) Maybe it’s from playing map-based games like Civilization, which in itself is something that influenced my worldview to a degree I’m not exactly comfortable admitting.
But perhaps there’s also something metaphysical about it. A map is a representation of the world. It’s always compressed, incomplete, inferior in most ways to the world itself — but it also gives us a new view of that world. Taken abstractly enough, this describes… literally every piece of media, ever. Books, essays, art, photography are all “maps” in some sense. They’re all a tiny snapshot of a grand and incomprehensible reality. Even our thoughts are like that.
I want this newsletter to be about this grand and incomprehensible reality. This is another way of saying that my newsletter is about literally everything. But it seems more philosophically on point.
In this newsletter, we’ll be drawing a map of the world, with everything that is wonderful about it, everything that is monstrous, and everything in between. Of course it won’t be everything — it can’t be, reality is too big, this newsletter is insignificant in the face of it. But a map of the world can still claim to cover everything even if it does not zoom into every single detail. In doing so, it makes the world feel more real.
Okay, but concretely? We’ll see — I will most likely keep writing these posts as a performance of sorts every Wednesday, so I can’t foresee accurately what that will look like. There may be rabbit holes again. There may be more serious posts about current affairs. There may even be things like fiction. The only constant is that it makes me — and you, hopefully — feel dazzlingly alive.
I’d love it if you tagged along.
P.S. If you like political philosophy and/or crypto and web3, check out my new essay about Aristotle and DAOs at The Classical Futurist, published on Monday.
It’s a section of the newsletter, alongside the updates from my other blog Dark Gray Matters (which I have yet to use).
I should probably go back to it, it was a pretty fun concept.